Walking Countre-2-120-14: Looking Forward

The Seventeenth Meeting of the Mariposa UROSJ League, or MUROSJL, devoted to the capture, taming, and putting to work of the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, recorded this 16th day of July, 2019. After this walk only one more labyrinth ring will remain: Clockre-3-100-15, to be walked July 23rd. Then what?

During our walk around the previous, perimeter ring we identified three “inframeasures” vital to Social Justice: Health Care, Physical Protection, and Basic Sufficiency. All these measures serve our people as they are, in their present circumstances as these evolve. Education devotes itself not only to that, but explicitly to what they will be in the future. In fact, it deals with them as they are only as the one possible path to what they will be. If we did not care what children will become we might build warehouses for them, in order to protect them and ourselves, but would we build schools? Warehouses would be socially unjust; schools strive not to be. Do they succeed?

As we ended last week’s walk someone blurted out: “It is absolutely intolerable that anyone should grow up illiterate in the language of the surrounding society!” The languages of the surrounding society in Canada are English or French or both, depending on where you live. What is our social responsibility towards those children whose mother tongue is not one of those? Is it the same if those children are indigenous, as for immigrants? Is assimilation prima facie a socially unjust policy, or does it depend on circumstances? The social and economic circumstances prevailing in Canada when the residential school policy was conceived were quite different from those of today. Our group was quite uncomfortable talking about the residential schools with no indigenous people present, and declined to go further for that reason, except to form a question they would like to put to anyone who asserted flatly that the residential school policy was socially unjust: Given all the circumstances of the time, what should the educational policy have been for indigenous children? Or, to borrow Stephen Leacock’s ultimate question for Social Justice: What was then possible, and what was not?

This caused someone to remember a previous comment to the effect that education is always counter-cultural for the uneducated, always seeking to create opportunities for inclusion for those systematically excluded. Stephen Leacock elevated Equality of Opportunity to a very high place in his principles of Social Justice. Opportunity for what? To prosper, no doubt. To enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, no doubt. To participate in the economic and social life of the nation. Or not to participate? Or to participate on one’s own terms?

Maybe, someone suggested, the right way to approach this growing stack of unsolved riddles is to assume that responsibility for “education” of the young, in the sense of cultivating all kinds of opportunities for choice, belongs to the entire community around the child, and not only to the government. Perhaps the government’s responsibility extends only to a limited range of those choices, those that are in some sense “main stream”. What are the socially just limits to public education, if there are any?

Where do “progressive” and “traditional” theories of education come into these questions? Nobody present knew enough about either to do anything except ask questions. Is it possible, we asked, that this distinction is a classic Both-And? Somebody consulted her phone and came up with this: Traditional schools focus on the teacher and what they teach while progressive schools focus on the students and how they can learn. This, we decided, is either pure sophistry, or pure Both-And.

What happens, someone asked, if schools are an appropriate setting for the traditional way, but not well suited to the progressive way? What happens to the progressive way if we try to perform it in an unsuitable setting? Does it remain progressive, or does it dwindle away into mush? We decided that was a leading question and we would answer it some other day.

Are schools institutions? And what difference does it make if they are? We hypothesized that schools try to be both, by putting non-institutional teachers into institutional settings, simply because those are the only kind of settings we know how, or can afford, to provide. Teachers would for sure resent the idea that they have been taken over by institutional norms and imperatives, and no doubt the best have not been. Are we satisfied that all our teachers are among the best, or is a normal distribution in effect, ranging from a basic standard of competence (which could in fact be high), to amazing brilliance? What are we entitled to expect?

We all then reminisced about our school experiences, and those of our children, and concluded that the normal distribution was in fact in effect. Instances of amazing brilliance in teachers did occur, and were always memorable, even life-changing. Instances of incompetence were rare, but not unknown, always memorable, and almost never life-changing in any negative sense. We acknowledged our own resilience with appropriate modesty. Instances of somewhere in between were most common and often forgettable. Education is not what you thought, it is what you can remember, said someone, quoting someone else no doubt.

When we reached the end of this week’s ring we concluded its fragmented, incomplete and inconclusive conversation by concluding that any method of education meeting the standards of Social Justice must constitute a prodigy of Doublethink and Both-Anding, probably in several dimensions. In confronting both “traditional” and “progressive” ideologues we should say, NOT “a plague on both your houses”, but “may both your houses prosper and thrive, and may they be the right kind of houses for that purpose.” That’s Both-Anding at its best, we decided.

Next week we walk the last ring. The question must be: Where do we go from here?

Minutes recorded by Paul Conway, who was fully engaged in the conversation and may have missed some nuances.

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